5 reasons not to buy the “Israel Gulf states allies” narrative

By Seth J. Frantzman

Over the last year or so a new narrative has emerged that Israel and the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia, are now part of a new alliance. The Wall Street Journal published a version of this story recently. Supposedly Israel and he Gulf are working together against Iran. Another article on this even included the odd quote “There is nothing that can stop the combination of Israeli money and the Saudi mind.” Shouldn’t it be the other way around? There are other articles on this narrative. But before all the pro-Israel folk start going to bat for the Gulf and get involved in lobbying efforts to deny any kinds of human rights abuses there, and start waving the Qatari flag, it might be best to consider a few things.

  1. The relationship will never be public: Yes there’s supposedly some common interests between the Gulf and Israel. But this won’t manifest itself in any way that benefits Israel internationally. The Gulf states all vote against Israel at the United Nations. They vote for UNESCO resolutions denying Israel rights in Jerusalem. They routinely vote against Israel at every chance they get at the UN. So as usual Israel is expected to be “friends” with a friend that won’t ever shake your hand or acknowledge you in public. It’s like the mistress and the wife. Israel’s “friends” want Israel to be the mistress. When they want something from Israel, Israel will come running, but the rest of the time they deny Israel exists publicly.
  2. The Gulf states are afraid of Iran and want Israel to be a shield. Just like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were happy to use the US to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, the Gulf is deeply afraid that Iran will destabilize these small states. Most Gulf states rely on masses of foreign labor and they have a small group of wealthy oligarchs that run them, while the masses of people don’t have citizenship and do their work for them. Many foreign workers die in industrial accidents and live in slave-like compounds. Of course these states are worried. A small pinprick from Iran can cause economic problems. Bahrain especially has a Shia majority and a Sunni monarchy. In contrast Iran’s threats to Israel are different and more distant.So what’s in this for Israel? They encourage Israel to share intelligence and do things because supposedly Israel and the Gulf are on the same side. But what does Israel gain really from working with undemocratic monarchies? What does Israel get? Does it get greater sympathy in the region. Is there less anti-semitism taught in schools? Does it get any benefit in the region, besides tacit, behind closed doors, endorsements of wealthy sheikhs saying “please do something to Iran for us.” There is no normalization that comes along with this relationship. Much like Saudi Arabia wanted US help in 1991 while also encouraging anti-western preachers and intolerance, here is another example of extremely wealthy regimes with a high GDP wanting another country to help do their work for them.
  3. Israel tends to be like the sad kid on the playground, begging for other countries to play with it. Since 1948 Israel’s presence was roundly rejected in the region. However that began to change in the 1970s as Egypt moved towards a peace treaty with Israel. In the 1990s Israel’s position strengthened once again with a treaty with Jordan, the Palestinians, and Israel warming relations with countries such as Tunisia and Morocco. Relations with Oman and Qatar also began to inch towards official diplomatic visits. But these were shattered by the Second Intifada and the war in Gaza in 2009. More recently there was talk of Israel opening a trade office in the UAE. Israel has become more accepted in the region and more integral to the region in the last decades compared to the Nasser years (when Israel was friends with Iran actually). But the reality is that the Gulf states realize they can have the best of both worlds. They don’t need to have official relations with Israel to begin to benefit from unofficial ties. How can this work. Perhaps in the halls of Washington or elsewhere. Covert ties benefit the Gulf. Does it benefit Israel? Perhaps it does. But Israel shouldn’t get its hopes up and neither should Israeli allies or Israel’s friends abroad. The Gulf states are very cautious and also manipulative. They know they have much to lose and they need the West and their allies. At the same time they pay lipservice to whatever keeps them stable. There is a double game sometimes as well. Qatar has tried time and again to meddle in Gaza. On the one hand it supports more Islamist agendas. But it doesn’t want the blowback from that support.
  4. The simplistic narrative that “the Gulf is against Iran” ignores the reality of how things work in the Middle East. Westerners and especially the pro-Israel crowd loves the “Sunni vs. Shia” story about the Middle East and their fantasy that Israel is “on the side of the Sunnis against Iran.” But Israel is not on the side of the Sunnis against Iran. First of all many Sunni regimes work with Iran while they pretend they don’t. Egypt especially has a nuanced view of the sectarian war in the Middle East. Just like Israel got sold a pipe-dream about an “Israel-Christian” alliance in Lebanon in the 1980s, Israel has now been sold a new story by grifters who tell needy Israelis that they are loved in Riyadh. But these regimes don’t like Israelis very much. They talk tough about Iran, but then their foreign ministers hobnob with the Iranians at international forums and events. They don’t hobnob with the Israelis. Because the reality is that despite anti-Shia sentiment, the Iranians are more welcome in the region than Israel. In the UAE quiet trade with Iran takes place. Talk of how Turkey and Iran are against eachother is all fantasy. Yes, they are against eachother in Syria, but then they also trade and meet and shake hands and smile. Much of what happens in the Middle East involves two or three layers of narratives. People may make harsh statements in public and nice statements in private, or vice versa. There is a lot of boastful and theatrical diplomacy in the Middle East. Israel and its western friends often don’t understand this. The pragmatists understand that this new Israel-Sunni kingdom alliance is one of convenience and shared interests. Fantasists and others believe that they are actually on the same side.
  5. Gulf States will never fight a war with Iran. The Middle East involves wars of proxies. That means that in Yemen for instance Saudi Arabia and the Gulf may fight the Houthis, but not the Iranians. In Syria Iran sends it IRGC and its proxies to fight, but Saudi and its friends only fund locals. No one ever really fights a war with eachother in the Middle East. Often local people die and get paid to die by outsiders. In the worst examples Shia Afghans are sent to Syria as “cannon fodder” by Iran. So when narratives are put forward that claim the Gulf needs allies against Shiite Iran, yes the Gulf does, because it doesn’t fight wars. It pays others to do that. Israel, as noted above, can be part of the shield, a proxy.  But Israel doesn’t want to be a proxy. Israel should be using proxies, not become one. Pragmatists in Israel surely know that. But people reading these stories sometimes don’t see that. Do the Gulf states fight Hezbollah? Do they fund anti-Hezbollah factions in Lebanon? Perhaps. And perhaps that is a place Israel and the Saudis can cooperate. Perhaps in southern Syria there are commonalities or in issues in Iraq and with the Kurds. Pragmatic alliances may work in Israel’s favor. But fantasies do not.

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